NASA's Webb Images Wow, but Telescope's Name Remains Contentious
The space agency says the name stays after completing an extended inquiry into administrator James Webb's possible role in homophobic government policies.
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Everyone — from astronomers and scientists to astro-nerds and Queen guitarists — has been raving over the first science images from NASA's James Webb Space Telescope revealed this week, and rightly so. They're pretty spectacular. But the astronomy community has continued to voice concerns about the agency's choice of namesake for the next-generation observatory.
NASA tells CNET it's standing by the moniker.
James Webb was NASA administrator, the agency's highest-ranking official, from 1961 until 1968, shepherding the agency through a golden era, including much of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. During his lifetime (Webb died in 1992), most people might've pointed to the accidental deaths of three Apollo I astronauts during a 1967 ground test in Florida as the most controversial chapter of Webb's tenure.
But for several years now, some astronomers and others have pointed to the Lavender Scare, a period when a number of homosexual people were ousted from the US government, as reason enough to rename NASA's flagship observatory.
"It's not clear what his exact role was in this," astronomer and writer Phil Plait, who was once part of NASA's team working on the Hubble Space Telescope, wrote in a Monday blog post about Webb and the telescope, "but it's clear there was a culture of oppression in NASA, and he ran the shop, so no matter what it happened under his purview. He acquiesced to it."
I asked NASA Press Secretary Jackie McGuinness for a response, and on Tuesday she sent the following statement on behalf of the agency:
"NASA's History Office conducted an exhaustive search through currently accessible archives on James Webb and his career. Our historians also talked to experts who previously researched this topic extensively. NASA found no evidence at this point that warrants changing the name of the telescope."
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Webb was in charge of NASA when at least one agency employee was fired because his supervisors suspected he was gay, and Webb was also second in charge of the US State Department in 1950 when 91 workers were fired for being homosexual or were under suspicion of being homosexual.
"The records clearly show that Webb planned and participated in meetings during which he handed over homophobic material," the column reads. "There is no record of him choosing to stand up for the humanity of those being persecuted."
Others are less convinced.
"Naming a flagship space observatory after Webb is a fitting recognition of his contributions to NASA science, even if he was just an administrator," astrophysicist Hakeem Oluseyi wrote on Medium in January 2021, detailing his exhaustive search for evidence of Webb's alleged bigotry.
"On the specific allegations against Webb the evidence is clear," Oluseyi concluded. "He was not the initiator of the Lavender Scare and he was not in charge of investigating allegations of 'homosexuality' or deciding the fate of accused individuals."
Historian David Johnson, who wrote the 2004 book The Lavender Scare, says there's record of Webb attending a White House meeting on the gay "threat" but that the meeting was about how to tamp down the hysteria politicians were kicking up over the topic.
"I don't see him as having any sort of leadership role in the Lavender Scare," Johnson told Nature in July 2021.
An investigation, but no report
In September, NASA appeared to close the case on renaming the telescope, when administrator Bill Nelson sent a one-sentence statement to reporters: "We have found no evidence at this time that warrants changing the name of the James Webb Space Telescope."
The agency didn't issue a report or share details about the scope of its investigation, an uncharacteristic move for a government division with a long history of transparency.
American Astronomical Society President Paula Szkody sent a letter to Nelson in November requesting a public and formal report on the investigation and calling for a more inclusive naming process. When the letter didn't receive a response, Szkody sent a second, stronger letter on March 16.
"Memorialization is important because it expresses a nation's values," Szkody said in the follow-up letter. "The current name of JWST, as chosen unilaterally and without community input, does not reflect NASA's core value of inclusion."
NASA's internal deliberations would become public later in March, when Nature magazine acquired and published a long chain of emails after a Freedom of Information Act request.
The emails show NASA decision-makers wrestling with a few pieces of evidence suggesting homophobic policies were in place during Webb's tenure, but ultimately finding nothing directly tying him to any specific decisions.
Acting NASA historian Brian Odom and an additional contract historian have since continued the investigation by visiting archives that were previously closed because of the COVID pandemic.
McGuinness told me Tuesday that this additional research is now complete and that it doesn't appear to have prompted NASA to change its mind.
"They are compiling their information now into an update the agency will share," McGuinness said.
Until then, the focus remains on the Webb Telescope's groundbreaking images of the universe. For some people, though, the brilliant pictures are tarnished by the prejudice associated with, if not the telescope's namesake, then at least the era during which he led NASA.